concept of space in general and various spaces in particular: global time-space, car trunk space, neighborhood space, supermarket space, room space, machine space, puzzle space, garden space, the space of shoelaces, and the space of dress patterns. Many of the tasks involve graphic representations: the time zone diagram in the telephone directory, the web search engine map, the floor plan of the supermarket, the grocery list, the picture of the completed jigsaw puzzle, and the dress pattern. All tasks involve complex sequences of operations: finding the clock times of the two places and subtracting the right one to work out the time difference; choosing boxes of the right size for the space available, orienting and rotating them, and stacking them; rotating parts, twisting parts, and tightening fastenings; breaking an operation into discrete parts and demonstrating and explaining the operations; making a loop with one lace, putting the other part of the shoe lace over the top of the loop, and so forth. Some of the tasks can be taught formally, such as map reading, whereas others, such as dress making, are no longer taught formally in schools, and still others, such as tying shoelaces, are learned informally as part of everyday life. There is transfer of learning from one task to another; jigsaw puzzles and exercise machine assembly have things in common.
Tasks can be performed in different ways. The web search engine offers three different representations: lists of text instructions, maps with straight-line segments, and conventional road maps. Strategies for solving jigsaw puzzles differ: some people sort straight edge pieces first, then match by shape. Others use color and patterns to make decisions. Some performance differences are significant and lead to faster and more efficient solutions: others, especially shoelace tying styles, are matters of preference (single versus double knots). There are differences based on age and sex in solving problems. Some people approach the trunk-packing task analytically, gauging the dimensions of boxes and thinking about alternative arrangements; others plunge ahead, using trial and error. For many activities, we are not consciously aware of spatial thinking; in other instances, the challenge is explicit and we monitor our own process.
Spatial thinking at work begins before work, during the daily challenge of commuting. Many drivers simplify the complex two-dimensional plane between home and work to a line that contains a sequence of turns at landmarks. The rest of the environmental context is not relevant to the task of commuting and therefore is largely ignored during the commute. The path, specifying where to turn and which direction to take, is crucial. As a consequence, people pay more attention to landmarks that mark changes in direction, and they remember those landmarks better than other places along the route (Tom and Denis, 2004).
The cognitive importance of landmarks and turns is reflected in neurophysiology. Using brain imaging technology, researchers have shown connections between cognitive processes and brain functioning (Aguirre et al., 1998; Maguire et al., 1997). There is a greater neurophysiological response to landmarks signaling turns than to landmarks that are simply en route in those areas of the brain underpinning the construction of mental maps (Janzen and van Turennout, 2003). These areas of the brain are larger in people who are expert at navigation, such as London taxi drivers who undergo considerable training before they are allowed to pursue their profession. Neurophysiological findings suggest that extensive spatial experience may lead to physical changes in the brain that may, in turn, further enhance spatial thinking.
Experienced taxi drivers have more extensive and detailed mental maps of the areas they service than do ordinary residents. Nevertheless, taxi drivers’ mental maps are simplified in the same ways as those of regular commuters. For example, taxi drivers think about the main arteries of a city as being straighter and more aligned with cardinal directions than they actually are. This illustrates an important characteristic of expertise. Expertise draws on the same mechanisms as